Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Thread That Runs So True Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140

Jesse Hilton Stuart wrote some thirty books about Kentucky during his lifetime. He crafted his love for his home state into poetry, novels, and the numerous short stories for which he is especially famous. He wrote two autobiographical works in addition to The Thread That Runs So True, Beyond...

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Jesse Hilton Stuart wrote some thirty books about Kentucky during his lifetime. He crafted his love for his home state into poetry, novels, and the numerous short stories for which he is especially famous. He wrote two autobiographical works in addition to The Thread That Runs So True, Beyond Dark Hills (1938) and The Year of My Rebirth (1956). The first of these, Beyond Dark Hills, was truly an exploration of self. During Stuart’s year of graduate study at Vanderbilt University, his English instructor had assigned a “brief autobiography” with an eighteen-page limit. In eleven days, Stuart wrote 322 pages, “from margin to margin,” because “I couldn’t tell Dr. Edwin Mims what I wanted to tell him in eighteen pages.” The manuscript was eventually published as his fourth book.

The Thread That Runs So True appeared after many of Stuart’s stories and novels had been published. Like his fiction, it incorporates a profound love for nature, an appreciation for the soft rhythm and colorful metaphor of the Kentucky hill people’s speech, and a pride in human accomplishment. The audience for this work, however, was very different. In a post-World War II world, Stuart was making an eloquent and pointed protest to those who controlled the fate of public education in Kentucky and across the nation. The son of an illiterate father and a mother with only a second-grade education, Stuart wrote in his 1958 preface to The Thread That Runs So True, “I know as surely as I live and breathe the positive proof of what education can do for a man.” This work, then, is at once a plea for education and a testimony to its power. In it, Stuart acknowledges the important encouragement he received from his parents, teachers, and students: “I felt I could repay them by inspiring other youth. This means more to me than all the money in the world.”

Stuart’s natural ability as a writer is especially apparent in this book, with its skillful combination of narrative and analytical prose. It is a work that functions effectively at three levels. At its most basic, it is masterful storytelling. The characters described are interesting and recognizable; their conversation is colorful and holds attention. At this level, The Thread That Runs So True is a collection of integrated short stories, perfect for schoolchildren and readers of all ages. It allows readers to compare the problems of the Kentucky schoolchildren with their own and to be inspired by what these children were able to accomplish, despite the most primitive and impoverished circumstances. As Stuart intended, these stories are testimony to the love of learning. Just as important, they are fun and dramatic. As single selections or as a whole, The Thread That Runs So True is a marvelous work for oral interpretation.

At the second level, this book is an important autobiography. Stuart was described by one literary critic as a prolific and natural-born writer comparable to Thomas Wolfe. As an author, Stuart was remarkable not only for the amount of quality work he produced but also for his reach across the full range of creative writing, from poetry and the short story to the novel, the autobiography, and the essay. His works are intriguing for their simplicity and for his dynamic expressions of individuality. He engages his readers, and they wish to know more about him as a person.

The Thread That Runs So True portrays Stuart as a young man in the process of making important life choices. The reader sees him accepting the challenge to better himself through education, yet ultimately turning away from the rewards of upward mobility to invest himself and his talent in the Kentucky hill culture that had nurtured him. His dismay at the low salaries and prestige given to teachers and the entire school system documents that this is a story of conscious choice, not of blind self-sacrifice.

This autobiography profiles the development of Stuart’s values and ethics. The tone is optimistic and positive, almost heroic in its assertion of individual worth and the promise of achievement through hard work. Although Stuart acknowledges that he was not typical of rural Kentuckians—there were fewer than ten local college graduates in his county—he works to demonstrate that his energy, native intelligence, and capacity for hard work were typical. He insists that these traits of his students were the real ingredients of his success as a teacher. He is an eloquent spokesman for Appalachia, and he demands that it be given its due.

At yet a third level, Stuart has selected stories and autobiographical elements to shape an indictment of the Kentucky school system, perhaps the most skillful aspect of the work. It is at this level that the book’s structure and purpose become most apparent. Each section, its title echoing the voices of the children’s song, uses colorful narrative and reconstruction of conversation to depict some problem of the Kentucky rural schools: the primitive buildings that housed the earnest, hardworking, barefoot elementary students; the community indifference and lack of respect; the insult of the trustee system, which gave local politicians more authority over school affairs than the professional educators; the pitiful budgets. Yet, the thread of student success runs throughout the stories, despite the system’s handicaps.

At its most effective, this picture of the state education system is framed in the conversations and discussions of the participants. The descriptions of the arguments among the Greenwood County School Board members provide candid and humorous insight into the workings of small-town politics. At other points, where Stuart wished to convey specific facts or information which would not normally be part of local conversation, he steps in as an observer and critic. For the most part, however, he portrays himself as participant in the events that take place. He blends the polemic into the fabric of the narrative.

Because this book is an autobiography, a time line substitutes for plot. The ending is, accordingly, rather ambiguous and probably the least satisfying part of the work. Stuart returned from his year of study in Europe to find vast changes in the Greenwood County school personnel and no place for him to work. His own outlook had changed as well, as a result of his observing the rise of Fascism in Europe. There is a mood of apprehension in the final section, giving it a different tone from that of its predecessors. It is as though Stuart has had his say about the needs of education and is searching for a new subject. His description of teaching remedial English at a large Ohio school is cursory and lacks the warmth of the earlier chapters. He returned to Kentucky to wed Naomi Deane, to farm the family homestead, and to work on his uncompleted novel. The tale simply stops there.

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